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Uncensored: A Lost Article about the Save Our Schools March

by Jose Vilson on December 27, 2011

in Jose

Jose Vilson and Pedro Noguera at SOS March

I don’t usually do this, but you’re my people. On August 2nd, GOOD Magazine published an article ostensibly written by yours truly … with almost half the article chopped off. I won’t get into reasons why things went missing because a) I still don’t agree with Michelle Rhee, b) the person who cut the piece in half isn’t the person I usually work with on these GOOD pieces, and c) I’m about to publish this joint for you all anyways. Enjoy the uncensored version of “A Bee You Cannot Eat: Education Reform After the SOS March.”

When five thousand educators, parents, students, and other denizens concerned with the state of education come to Washington, DC ready to respond to the call for change, you respond. When these people come together in a coalition for educational social justice and activist, you listen. When you’re prompted as a teacher to speak on behalf of these thousands and the many more who couldn’t show up, you stand up and represent them. More importantly, when students of all backgrounds deserve better, you fight for it.

Such was my charge this weekend at the Save Our Schools March and Conference in Washington, DC. I decided that the best way to respond was not to have a response at all, but to have a clear message about the lay of the land. It needed to be rooted in the realities of the everyday classroom teacher with a prescient knowledge of what’s happening in our country today. I needed to give pieces of this movement to take home with them, messages of fury and messages of hope. While I had the privilege of attending and speaking at this march, there were hundreds more who wanted to be there to unite with us, fully understanding the political stake we have in ensuring that our schools improve.

It’s less about international competition and college readiness and more about developing better people that will help grow our system.

While up there, I looked at this sea of concerned citizens and transmitted their energies to mine. Thus, my voice went from soft and nasal to gritty and airborne. Editor and writer John Norton referred to it as “… short about 2500 words but I can hear the howl – the best teachers of your generation.” I crafted the remarks after a few listens of Gil Scot-Heron’s “Comment #1” sample in Kanye West’s “Who Will Survive in America,” hoping I could evoke a similar sort of urgency. At some point on the stage, it became less about how I performed the piece and more about how many people would such a piece to even an increment more of action.

After finishing my poem “This Is Not a Test”  (video) in the Ellipse near the White House, I felt this charge shake my foundation. In 100-degree weather, anyone might have felt similarly. After the screams and handshakes backstage, and thousands of onlookers, I remember thinking that the movement can’t end here. I sat down, envisioning the lack of equity still profoundly shaking our schools. I didn’t just think of my 8th graders from my classroom that just graduated. I see barren classrooms in East St. Louis, overcrowded spaces in Detroit, windows boarded up in Atlanta, streams of Scantron sheets floating over Miami / Dade County, and students in line in front of metal detectors in New York City. When I got a chance to sit down for a second and gather my thoughts, I had a hard time believing that this many people showed up for the event. The meme is that teachers consider themselves neutral, and all they ever do is complain.
Apparently, we also have a say in the national zeitgeist, and we’re no longer settling for a passive role in our jobs.
University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn shut down critics of the SOS March succinctly by pointing out that the march and conference weren’t intended to be policy meetings, much the way we can’t assume anything actually gets done with politicians have their local and national conventions. Unlike those conventions, where the pageantry only makes statements to re-affirm which candidate will represent their party, this march and conference let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that there’s a huge contingent of us who object to the policies these elected officials have set for our youth. Whereas before, shaking hands and meeting with a special representative might have quelled these voices, the new generation of activists seeks actionable items via protest and the vote.

Some critics of the march proclaim that education is the new civil rights issue and then wonder why the people this affects the most would take to the streets.

This battle for the state of public education won’t and doesn’t end with a congregation of some of the biggest luminaries, educators, parents, and activists we could find in the middle of summer. Names like Ceresta Smith, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch, John Kuhn, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, and Deborah Meier don’t convene for such an event without knowing that there are very necessary next steps to the things we say and do. While Matt Damon and John Stewart made important contributions to the march, they’re amongst the people who regularly honor and revere the work that educators did to make their lives better. While we see concrete examples of creative assessment and equity for all students regardless of background, we continue to avoid them at the behest of those who prefer the status quo of hyper-capitalism.

There isn’t just hope. There is demand. It’s not just teachers saying this anymore. People all across the country have seen that the direction of this country lies in how well our education system works, and it’s become apparent that the messages they’re hearing from their local media don’t make sense for this country now. They see how corporate interest not only taints the political process, but the educational process for their students. At some point, through very concrete actions, we must see that change. Now that the first march is over, it’ll be less about marching for those that harm our students; it’ll be about marching toward the students we need to help.

Richard Whitmore wrote a book recently about former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose dishonesty about her transformational qualities powers over districts is only trumped by the power of the media to pull their wind beneath her sharp wings, entitled The Bee Eater. As I saw the crowd that descended upon the nation’s capital this past weekend, I couldn’t help but laugh at this juxtaposition.

For a weekend, there was a swarm of thousands rallying together against ideas like hers. And I was a bee she simply couldn’t digest.

Jose, who, in any and all things, will let you know when he knows …

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Us Against Them, Unless We Say You’re Not One Of Them

by Jose Vilson on August 30, 2011

in Jose

I'm Wherever Franklin Sits

Last night, I got into it with a few, well-established individuals of color over their union bashing. I’ll stop it there because every time I hear it from people of color, I often lay up a “whatthefuckisthisshit?” and then zip my mouth henceforth. The first time I saw it this summer, it came from a guy who I thought I would respect. Then, he implicitly had to bring the stereotypical “bad teacher,” who went by union rules (whatever that means) and didn’t cooperate with what he wanted to do. I wanted to say to him and the individuals in our community who joined “the other team” that, without unions, you wouldn’t have your precious book appearances, perch positions, or appearances on CNN.

One of the points I made recently in my post-SOS March was this:

I genuinely believe that there are 95% of us who actually believe in the cause. This 95% will move the objectives of the SOS and will do everything in their power to do what’s right for our students. The other 5%, the ones that can really do some damage, fall into a few categories, but it’s often a strand of selfishness that pervades their thinking. For instance, they might say they’re for a particular group being represented in this space, but only if they’re leading it. If they’re not leading it, then that group was never represented. Any new initiative makes it super-easy for someone to see things as a movement for self. That’s why we need to see things for the bigger picture, and the bigger picture doesn’t always have you in front.

As we turn our thoughts to making true progress, we have to consider the means and end by which we achieve this “win” of ours. I mean that for leaders of all backgrounds and colors, by the way. I’m of the belief that “wins” that matter don’t just belong to one person, but to a collective. As such, the collective would do well to include as many people of like mind as possible into their ranks. It’s as if people want to replicate the very power structure they purport to oppress them.

Is the movement about the people or about you as the leader of the people?

Thus, I find myself occupying this third rail where I want to do well by the proletariat, but not by emulating the very people who brought us here to begin with. I prefer to find ways to be ahead of the curve and be proactive, and not simply react to everything with a point-by-point retort. The latter suggests that we’ll always react and not get ahead of whatever corporatist / deformist movement we protest. Further, we need to take the long and wide view on the things we do if we even have a shot to make critical change.

People wonder how we become leaders. A big part of that is the simplest thing you can do: make sure that what you’re doing as a leader is selfless. It’s about the people. Even if you’re by yourself saying this, people understand your work as representative of the people, and that the work becomes so much bigger than you. If you’re bigger than your work, then maybe you should check behind you to see who’s actually following.

Jose, who prays that peoples’ pain be champagne …

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My Very Real Takeaways About the SOS March

by Jose Vilson on August 2, 2011

in Jose

Allow me to keep it real with you all. Not that I need to ask permission:

1. First, I’d like to thank those of you with encouraging words about my recent speech / poem at the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC. It’ll certainly be a moment I’ll never forget. For those of you that didn’t get to see the video, both Dan Brown  and Jon Becker put versions up on their YouTube accounts. I put up the text for the speech a couple of nights before that magical Saturday. I also wrote something for GOOD Magazine about why I’m marching. Amazingly, the videos created enough buzz to be ranked either 3rd or 4th in views for the speeches, amongst names like Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, and some guy named Matt Damon. John Kuhn also provided a gem worth watching.

2. It’s important to note that, as one of the few current K-12 educators to get to speak, I took that responsibility very seriously. Not to sound self-aggrandizing, but I knew how important it was for those of us still teaching kids to have a voice. What I’m about to say is no disrespect to the experts, organizers, celebrities, parents, and media heads who participated in the march and contributed their voices. We need as many voices as possible to contribute to our movement. The old educator / non-educator dichotomy needs to give way to those who are for our coalition in one form or another and those who believe in the status quo. Yet, reading some of the feedback from the high-profile blogs, media, and marchers themselves, some implied there were no K-12 educators speaking at this event or that K-12 educators were a passive audience in this event, including from those who were actually there.

Strange.

3. The perspective was made even more complicated with the mainstream media’s coverage of Matt Damon’s participation in the march. Some critics alluded to the idea that teachers shouldn’t have to depend on Matt Damon, who spoke rather eloquently throughout the march about educational issues, to speak on our behalves. Naturally, I agree. Yet, there’s a myriad of benefits for our movement that underlies his participation. This includes smacking down ridiculous “free market reporters.” If he was good enough to represent us then, why not throughout?

4. I’m still ruminating on this concept of separating a man from his work. My fiance likes to say that the audio doesn’t fit the visual. If you’ve lived long enough on this planet, you’ll notice that a man’s words and actions can be completely different. It’s disheartening in a movement like this, but it doesn’t preclude me from continuing my participation and activism within the movement. It just means my eye becomes keener for it.

5. I genuinely believe that there are 95% of us who actually believe in the cause. This 95% will move the objectives of the SOS and will do everything in their power to do what’s right for our students. The other 5%, the ones that can really do some damage, fall into a few categories, but it’s often a strand of selfishness that pervades their thinking. For instance, they might say they’re for a particular group being represented in this space, but only if they’re leading it. If they’re not leading it, then that group was never represented. Any new initiative makes it super-easy for someone to see things as a movement for self. That’s why we need to see things for the bigger picture, and the bigger picture doesn’t always have you in front.

6. The next step for us? Well, we can only do what we can do. I don’t believe the organization has to focus on just a few objectives because of how many arms we have. We have a few guiding principles, but there’s a few (alternative / preferable) ways to get to it. On my end, I’d love to have another round of bloggers discussing what their personal next steps will be under the EDUSolidarity tag like we did before. I also see that we have some ways to go before we use words like “racism,” “sexism,” and “ageism” effectively to talk about what’s happening in our worlds. I also see a need for talking about how teachers advocate for themselves, lest we lock ourselves in the teachers’ lounge.

Overall, my experience was really positive, and there’ll be more after this soon …

Jose, who prefers to discuss ideas instead of people except when necessary …

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Why I’m Marching Forward [It's The Only Direction]

July 17, 2011 Jose

You’ve got to be wondering what a teacher like me is doing marching against the “reform” trends. For those of you unfamiliar with my background, I graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Syracuse University. A year later, after 6-8 months of unemployment and a stint as a data entry person at an educational […]

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